Rigor Disputed In Standards For Teachers

By Bess Keller — January 14, 2004 8 min read
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States have fashioned wildly different ways of judging whether teachers already in the classroom meet the federal standard of “highly qualified,” raising the possibility that teachers in some states will not face the high hurdle that Congress intended.

The Education Commission of the States has created a database to track state’s standards for highly qualified teachers.

Critics say that many states are giving veteran teachers too easy a pass on whether they know their subjects well enough to teach them effectively, as the No Child Left Behind Act specifies.

“Few states distinguish themselves in terms of the rigor and comprehensiveness” of their evaluation systems, said Ross Wiener, the director of policy for the Education Trust, a Washington- based group that pushes higher achievement for poor and minority students. The trust released a report last month criticizing states for designing evaluations that depend too much, for instance, on existing licensing or professional-development requirements that may or may not reflect subject knowledge.

See Also...

See the accompanying table, “Housse Rules.”

To be deemed highly qualified under the federal law, teachers must hold a standard license and demonstrate knowledge of the subjects they teach. Teachers new to the profession and classroom veterans are treated somewhat differently, though, in how they show such knowledge.

New elementary teachers must pass a test of core subjects; those beginning careers in middle or high school must either pass a test or have a major, a graduate degree, or advanced certification in the subjects they teach. Veteran teachers may show content knowledge in those ways or by meeting special requirements set by each state within broad federal guidelines.

Those requirements for veteran educators are known by the acronym HOUSSE, for “high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation.” The additional standards are not mandatory, and no complete list of such options exists. But the vast majority of states have envisioned at least one route to “highly qualified” status for experienced teachers who do not want to have to pass a test or complete significant coursework.

State officials, for their part, have taken advantage of the flexibility offered by the law while sometimes lamenting the uncertainties that go with it.

“When we go to a state, it’s very unusual for [HOUSSE] not to be one of the longest agenda items,” said Carolyn Snowbarger, who is leading the U.S. Department of Education’s effort to help states comply with the teacher- quality provision of the law. In a recent interview with Education Week, Ms. Snowbarger did not rule out any particular approach as automatically in conflict with the act.

Still, it’s hard to envision how both Arkansas’ standard and New Mexico’s, for example, could fulfill the same mandate. Arkansas permits teachers with five years of experience to be considered highly qualified on that basis alone.

New Mexico, meanwhile, insists that teachers have five years’ experience, two successful job evaluations, and college coursework in their fields before progressing to a second set of requirements. Those include being observed in the classroom by two peers who teach the same subject, as well as compiling a satisfactory portfolio of lesson plans, student-achievement data, and more. Finally, the two judges must agree on whether the teacher has met the standard of highly qualified.

Deadline Looming

Many states are scrambling to get their HOUSSEs in order so that the maximum number of teachers can be declared highly qualified. The teacher-quality provisions of the No Child Left Behind law have already kicked in for newly hired teachers in schools receiving Title I compensatory education money. But just 11/2 years remain before the 2005-06 deadline, when every core-subject teacher in a public school is supposed to meet the standard.

The problem is not in the disparities between states per se, experts say, but rather in the chance that teachers in some states will get the federal stamp of approval when their content knowledge is inadequate.

“The law stresses that subject-matter competence is a primary component of quality teaching,” said Jennifer Azordegan, a researcher at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States who has been studying the state evaluation methods. “The question is, do the HOUSSEs the states are devising show [that].”

Mr. Wiener of the Education Trust added that it is important to identify the teachers who need help with academic content, both to assist them and to build political will for solving the pervasive problem of assigning the least-prepared teachers to the least-advantaged children.

Analysts are wary when states let teachers use years of experience to demonstrate knowledge of their subjects, as many do. Mr. Wiener cites the example of California. Under that state’s proposed plan, out of the 100 points needed to satisfy the HOUSSE requirements, teachers would get up to 50 points from five or more years of teaching. In contrast, Mr. Wiener said, Alabama’s similar point system allows experience to count for at most only 30 points out of 150, no matter how long the teacher has been in the classroom.

Another red flag goes up for Ms. Azordegan when an evaluation system relies heavily on classroom observations, especially if they are the same ones that districts traditionally use to assess teachers. “Whenever I see a building administrator is involved,” she said, “I ask: Are they qualified in this subject area; do they know that subject?”

West Virginia is beginning to use classroom observations for its HOUSSE. The state has new requirements for observations that explicitly address “accurate and current knowledge,” and the state’s administrators have been trained in its use, said Karen L. Huffman, the executive director of the state education department’s professional- preparation office.

Ms. Huffman defended the choice, saying it might be considered as setting a higher standard than the federal law because the observations take into account both content knowledge and the ability to convey that knowledge to students.

California and Washington state also consider one standard, satisfactory teacher evaluation, to be sufficient for demonstrating content knowledge. Missouri requires three consecutive satisfactory observations.

Point Systems Popular

A few states allow or require teachers to submit portfolios documenting their classroom work, either in partial fulfillment of the federal standard (South Carolina) or as the sole basis for it (California).

At least a dozen states, including California, Maryland, Kansas, and Kentucky, have devised systems in which teachers rack up points from a variety of professional experiences, usually including years in the classroom, training and coursework in the subjects they teach, extra duties such as mentoring a new teacher or writing curricula, and pertinent honors. Teachers must accumulate a specified number of points to pass the HOUSSE hurdle.

Many teachers say they can live with such a plan.

“Prior to HOUSSE being adopted [in Maryland], there were many teachers who were terrified of losing their jobs,” said Shirley McDonald, a middle school math teacher and local teachers’ union officer in Frederick, Md. “As word came out that Maryland was considering accepting some experience, anxiety lessened, but I don’t think it has totally lessened.”

David L. Simmons, a teacher on special assignment with the Ventura County school superintendent’s office in California, agreed that his state’s draft HOUSSE also made the requirements of the federal law more palatable to teachers. “I wouldn’t say they [are] happy about it, but they get points for service to the profession, and in that sense, it’s validating,” he said. His office has explained the system to hundreds of teachers.

Several states have avoided crafting a separate set of requirements for demonstrating subject mastery by asserting that a state teaching license in the right subjects already fills that bill. Among the states that award highly qualified status based almost entirely on a standard license are Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and for elementary teachers, Oregon.

Indiana officials reasoned that the license issued since 1986 requires teachers to have passed a test that includes content knowledge and, to maintain the license, engage in documented professional development. What’s more, said Marie Theobald, the executive director of the state professional-standards board for teachers, the license issued before 1986 demanded that a teacher acquire a master’s degree in his or her field after five years in the classroom.

“Indiana has always had strong content-preparation requirements,” she said. “When I take a look at what our system and our record are, and I look at other states, I feel pretty good.”

Nonetheless, Ms. Theobald said that the state would design a HOUSSE for the “less than 1 percent” of Indiana teachers who may be teaching in areas for which they have not had explicit subject preparation.

Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Ohio have taken a different but related tack, scaffolding their standards on professional-development requirements already in place. In New Hampshire, for instance, teachers must assess themselves against state content standards and then present evidence of their mastery to their principals. Teachers with deficits in their knowledge must each design a plan to remedy them and tick off all the activities listed on the plan before being deemed highly qualified.

Mississippi is also relying on professional development to bring some teachers without the required major or advanced work up to speed, but the training is controlled and financed at the state rather than the local level. Middle school teachers who do not have the required coursework for their subject have the choice of successfully completing the state’s only HOUSSE option: subject-specific “boot camps,” including follow-up sessions.

Meanwhile, just a few states allow or require teachers to present evidence of student performance on standardized tests as part of a wider evaluation for highly qualified status. In Colorado, on a pilot basis, and in Tennessee, student test results can form the entire basis for passing the evaluation. Student performance also has a prominent place in Virginia’s plan.

Some observers welcome that approach, while others say that given researchers’ understanding of how to pin down the contribution an individual teacher makes to student achievement, the effort is premature.

“I think it’s an important development that other states should try to emulate,” argued the Education Trust’s Mr. Wiener. “Everything else we look at is basically a proxy.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Rigor Disputed In Standards For Teachers


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